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Local tattoo artists tap into generation’s love of body art

September 23, 2012
By BILL ACKERBAUER , The Leader Herald

In the last year, two new tattoo parlors have opened for business on the main streets of Gloversville and Johnstown, joining at least a half-dozen other body-art establishments in Fulton and Montgomery counties.

The growth of the industry locally reflects a national trend - tattoos are more visible in mainstream society and hugely popular with "Millennials" - the present generation of young adults.

Among Americans in the 18-to-29 age bracket, 38 percent had at least one tattoo in 2010, according to "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next," a report released in February of that year by the Pew Research Center.

Article Photos

Michael Hopkins stands behind the counter Friday at Revenge Tattoo Parlour, which he owns and operates with his wife, Emily, on South Main Street in Gloversville. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)

"Tattoos have become something of a trademark for Millennials," according to the report. About a quarter of the people in that age bracket had a piercing somewhere other than an earlobe.

Artists Michael and Emily Hopkins own Revenge Tattoo Parlour, which opened about a year ago at 25 S. Main St., Gloversville.

Mr. Hopkins, who describes himself as a "tattoo geek" fascinated by the colorful history and traditions of his craft, says tattoos are not for everybody, but for many people, they speak a "visual language," providing a special vehicle for self-expression.

"Each of my tattoos is like an amulet," Hopkins says, "a reminder of places I've been and things I've done."

Jason Wilder, a repeat customer of Hopkins', came to Revenge on Thursday evening to add to his collection of body art, which includes tattoos in several styles, by many different artists.

"I've got six different people on this arm alone," said Wilder, who is 25 and works as a nurse at St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam. He said he plans to move to Gloversville soon, having previously lived in Palatine Bridge and California.

Wilder came back to the shop Friday to show Hopkins how his two brand-new pieces were looking after the swelling had decreased. He had added a winged hourglass to his left arm and a work in progress - the outline of a woman's portrait on his abdomen.

Winning work

Another of the artists represented on Wilder's arm is Steven Bahruth, a Johnstown native on the staff at Needlewurks in Saratoga Springs. Last month, Bahruth surprised himself by winning an award for Most Realistic Tattoo at the Boston Tattoo Convention.

"I really didn't expect to win anything," he said. "I was up against some really good competition."

Bahruth inked his winning artwork - a triptych with images of a horse, a waterwheel and a stone barn - on the leg of his wife, Jennifer. He completed the horse image ahead of time and finished the rest of the tattoo at the convention.

"She was a champ to sit there for five or six hours," he said of the convention experience.

Bahruth, 33, said he's one of the older artists at Needleworks, and his development as an artist - he also paints and sculpts - has coincided with his settling down as a married man who takes his career seriously.

In his younger days, he said, he was a bit of a "wild child" and didn't finish high school, but he found his calling in tattoo art. Bahruth served an apprenticeship of more than two years and now has about two years under his belt as a full-time tattoo artist.

"It occurred to me that working in factories and restaurants wasn't going to be for me," he said. "So one day I came over [to Needlewurks] with a portfolio, and things worked out."

Safety concerns

Michael Hopkins, who also is 33 and is originally from Mayfield, said he also served an apprenticeship of about 2 1/2 years. He said someone thinking about getting a tattoo for the first time should do some research and stay away from any tattoo artist who isn't trained and experienced. He's done more than 500 tattoos since Revenge opened on his South Main Street, he said, and people should not consider tattooing at the hands of amateurs or as a do-it-yourself activity.

"There are a lot of frauds out there," he said. "I call them 'scab vendors' and 'kitchen wizards'."

Hopkins knows how to make his own ink and his own needles, and he only uses ink made in small batches by himself or by people he knows. He says his tattoos heal faster because of the quality and purity of the ink he uses.

He and his wife are certified by the Albany County Department of Public Health, which keeps close tabs on tattoo shops in that county. He said regulation varies from county to county, and tattoo shops in bigger urban areas are subject to much closer scrutiny than those in Fulton County.

Tattoos are serious business - not only because they are permanent but because they require ink and needles coming into contact with the bloodstream. And they're not for the faint of heart.

"Tattoos hurt," said Bahruth, who has tattoos himself but isn't covered head-to-toe like many of his colleagues.

Under New York state law, tattooing a person younger than 18 is a crime, and there is no provision for parental consent. Body piercing of minors is allowed only with written parental consent.

Artistic vision

"The first thing somebody should look for [in a tattoo studio] is cleanliness," Bahruth said. "Nobody wants to be in a dirty shop."

But the second thing to look for in the artist is an aesthetic sensibility and demonstrated talent.

"You need to know your artist," Bahruth said. "Just because you have a clean shop doesn't mean you're going to be good tattoo artist."

His trademark as an artist, as his recent award attests, is lifelike detail.

"I do approach the realistic aspect of what I do," Bahruth said, noting he strives for authenticity, even in depictions of creatures from the realms of fantasy and science fiction. His focus on realistic detail, he said, gives his work "that wow factor."

Michael Hopkins said he travels as much as possible to feed his appetite for new and groundbreaking work. He said one of the things that makes Revenge stand out among other tattoo parlors in the region is that he has a huge collection of handpainted "flash" - examples of tattoos designs - that he has created himself or acquired by trading with colleagues around the country.

He said he identifies with both the American traditional and Japanese schools of tattooing, and he takes his inspiration from some of the legends of the 20th century, such as Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, who ran a famous tattoo parlor in Hawaii.

Hopkins said he frowns upon fads, including "new school" and tribal tattoo styles. He said such tattoos eventually lose their luster and appear dated.

"I want a tattoo to look as good 15 years from now as it does today," Hopkins said, noting he takes pains to think carefully about contrast, value and definition in his work.

"My biggest concern is doing a good, clean tattoo. If I can't see it from across the street and tell what it is, it's a bad tattoo."

Counseling customers

Some customers are very specific about want they want in a tattoo. Others come to an artist and ask for suggestions.

"Generally, I work with the customer, so they get what they want," Hopkins said, but he admits the discussions leading up to the actual needlework can be a "fine dance" sometimes. "If I don't think it's gonna translate well or fit on the body, I'll tell them that."

He said he doesn't concern himself with the customer's motivation for getting a particular tattoo - just that the customer is satisfied with the finished product.

"I'm a tattooer, not a psychologist," he said.

Hopkins said he charges flat fees for tattoos softball-sized or smaller, with the complexity of the design affecting the price. For larger pieces, he charges an hourly rate ranging from $80 to $100.

The going rate in big-city tattoo parlors around the country is closer to $125 per hour.

Bahruth said he tries to work with customers to fulfill their requests. He doesn't mind creating somewhat "dark" images - skulls and skeletons are a popular motif - but he won't do anything he considers hateful or evil.

"It's my work and you're just wearing it," he said. "I have the right to decline anything I want to decline. I just tell them I'm not the artist for them."

On the other hand, he said, there's no accounting for taste, and sometimes he has to set his artistic vision aside and defer to the customer's wishes.

"If a girl wants a star, she's getting a star," he said.

Not for everybody

Though the Millennials have more illustrated men and women than any previous generation, most of them are somewhat modest. According to the Pew Research Center report, about 70 percent of the people with tattoos have them only in places where they are normally covered by clothing.

A visible tattoo, Bahruth said, is not a public invitation to judge the artwork or the person wearing it. He said as it becomes more prevalent, society has begun to respect tattooing for the art form it is.

"The reason it's becoming so big with our generation is the quality, because we've taken tattoos to a whole new level," he said. "It's fine art, and it's not just what you pick off the wall - it's whatever you can imagine."

While the surge in popularity has been good for business and the art form, Bahruth and Hopkins both say tattoos will never be the right choice for everybody.

"If it's for everybody, that sort of takes the 'special' out of it," Bahruth said. "The people who get a tattoo because everyone else has one are the people who are going to regret it down the line."

Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at



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